The Zambian Tonga People

Innocent Malambo is a Zambian tour operator based in Livingstone where he also manages his company, Nekacheya Travel. Innocent is passionate about African culture and, thanks to his job, disseminates his knowledge and the beauty of his country with many tourists who visit Zambia.

Zambia, located in southern Africa, is a unitary republican state and takes its name from the fourth biggest and very famous river: the Zambezi (fig. 1).


Despite this, Zambia has other rivers such as the Kafue, Luapula, Kabompo, Luangwa and Chishimba. In addition, Zambia has also spectacular lakes such as the Tanganyika, the Bangweulu and the Mweru and the Kariba – one of the biggest man-made in the world.

The country has twenty national parks teeming with wildlife and exceptional flora and fauna such as the Kafue National Park, which is the oldest and largest of Zambia’s national parks covering a massive 22,400 km2. We can also add the Lower Zambezi National Park, whose main characteristic is its wilderness. Then, the Mosi oa Tunya, which extends for about 12 km from the Batoka Gorge along the Zambezi River and above the Victoria Falls and finally, the South Luangwa National Park, one of the greatest wildlife sanctuaries in the world.

In addition to the rich natural wealth of the country, it must be noted that Zambia is also home to many ethnic groups such as the Tonga people.

The Tonga People

The exact origin of the Tonga people is still unclear, but what is certain is that they are one of the earliest settlers in modern day Zambia. The Tonga are one of the Southern African Tribes found in more than one country and they reside specifically in both the southern part of Zambia and the north-western part of Zimbabwe.

Before the formation of Lake Kariba, their home was the almost inaccessible middle Zambezi Valley between the rugged Batoka Gorge below Victoria Falls and the confluence of the Umniati and Zambezi, some 200 miles downstream.

Unlike other ethnic groups in Southern Africa, the Tonga people did not have a centralised social structure and for this reason, they are defined as a “stateless society”. However, some members within the society could acquire some degree of authority.

Another difference from the other ethnic groups is the size of their settlements, which are smaller and comprise almost exclusively of family members. It seems that the lack of a large-scale central organisation rendered the Tonga easy prey to more powerful neighbours, meaning that they suffered repeated raids for cattle and captives from armies by the Ndebele and Lozi speaking people.

The Tonga people’s main economic activity is agriculture and cattle husbandry. Although cattle herding was considered exclusively a male activity, men and women could own cattle. Fishing and hunting activities, which required specialized knowledge, were also practiced within the Tonga society.


Regardless of the absence of written resources, the Tonga people have a rich tradition of oral history, music, dance and folklore.

Traditionally, elders used to narrate stories around the evening fire passing on knowledge and values to the youngest generations. Stories could have different purposes such as educative: to teach young people how to act cleverly, be imaginative, smart and attract a beautiful girl’s attention, how to be successful by working hard, and how to behave in certain situations. The purpose of other stories was to preserve the myths and traditions of the Tonga people alive.

Rites of Passage

Initiation ceremonies to mark the passage from childhood to adolescence is a well-known characteristic of many tribal societies in Africa. The Tonga initiation ceremonies are simpler than those of the other tribes. Girls were trained for their future roles as good wives. Their initiation rites included a period of isolation and a short rite to mark the girls’ passage to maturity. In this special rite, a new name was attributed to them as a symbol of the beginning of adulthood.

The Tonga people showed a particular care for children’s education, who were trained by older people in good manners and in the Tonga society’s principles and values.

The Tonga people practiced sex segregation for some daily activities. Thus, during their teenage year’s boys and girls performed different chores, carrying water and firewood for the girls and hunting small game and fishing for the boys. However, occasionally the tasks could be reversed.

Future husbands had to pay for the bride to the family of his bride-to-be, usually in the form of cattle, while after the marriage the couple lived in the husband’s village. Polygamy was traditionally encouraged, but this practice is very uncommon nowadays.


In traditional Tonga society, there is a wide-spread cult of the muzimu (spirit). It is believed that when people pass away, they leave a spirit which can be inherited by the living. The muzimu moves between the spirit world and the world of humans.

The Tonga people believed in a river god called Nyami Nyami, who protected people and also helped their sustenance. In iconography, the god is represented with the head of a fish and the body of a serpent and it is believed to live in the Zambezi River. Occasionally, devastating floods that struck the country causing many deaths have been interpreted as sign of the god’s disapproval.

Within the society the presence of priests with special powers was attested and they were considered significant people within the community. Particularly the so-called rainmakers were individuals believed to mediate on behalf of the community to the ancestors and the gods for a good rain season, which would have secured a prosperous harvest.

Witchcraft and Traditional Medicine

Witchcraft and sorcery were also practiced in the Tonga society. Generally speaking, witchcraft was practiced for harming a fellow human being, to improve the conditions in life of a person, or even to secure a promotion.

Tonga people believed in an object known as a “fly switch” that could make people quickly disappear in particular circumstances.

Traditional healers also existed in the Tonga society. They had a good knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs and were believed to have some divine power. Healers could treat symptoms caused by natural causes, but also sicknesses caused by witchcraft.

Women practiced magic and also had a good knowledge of the traditional medicine. Women mainly focused on matters of attracting a partner and fertility, since unmarried or barren women were looked down upon by society. Thus, women always sought divine protection particularly during their pregnancy and, in this particular circumstance, they used to make a charm to be tied around their waists.

Moreover, the Tonga believed that getting pregnant while breastfeeding could be dangerous for the new born since it could cause severe sickness or even death. The Tonga people refer to this particular case with the term masoto (a childhood disease), indicating the taboo associated with a woman getting pregnant while breastfeeding.

Craft Specialisation

Traditionally, the Tonga people were blacksmiths and this knowledge has been passed on from one generation to another. Men were also specialised in wooden carvings such as wooden stools, cooking sticks and scooping spoons.

Women were mainly involved in pottery making, marking their products with signatures and stamps, not only for decoration purposes but also to identify their owners. Pots were made in various sizes for drawing water, cooking, brewing beer, and storing grain and other foods. Yet, women also were involved in basket weaving, as well as in the creation of body adornment products such as bead making.

Traditional Dresses

Tonga people used particular clothes according to gender. In order to explain to children this difference, the elder people taught boys and girls that it is necessary to wear different types of clothes. Thus, men used to wear loincloth while women wore fibre skirts and also, they used traditional jewellery to adorn their bodies. Nowadays, they do not wear any longer such traditional dresses, but women still seem to be inclined to wear skirts.

The Rain Festival

The Lwiindi Gonde Ceremony is the main Tonga ceremony and is held in the South West of Monze town on the last Sunday of June.

In this special occasion, the Tonga community celebrate the first harvest of the year expressing their gratitude by playing instruments, dancing and praying all together. It is important to underline that the term “Gonde” means thick bush and this is the place where the shrines of the Tonga people are and usually the community thanks also their ancestors in this ceremony.

Funeral Rites

The community also gather together in sad moments like the passing of a member of society and these circumstances are perceived as an important occasion. The Tonga society communicated such sad news by the sound of the funeral drum, made by elephant skin.

During the ceremony, dance and songs were performed together with a particular practice, which involved smearing a white powder on the faces of participants that lasted for a week and symbolised mourning. The possessions of the deceased were shared by his/her family as a way of sharing his/her spirit.

People who passed away at the age of 100 were particularly honoured by the community by placing headstones on their tomb or by the graveside.

The Tonga People and the Conservation of their Heritage

The Tonga people are a thriving community, but some of its cultural heritage is being lost. On the one hand, the advent of Christian missionaries made Tonga people give up traditional beliefs and practices such as polygamy, ancestor worship and witchcraft. On the other hand, the fact that many Tonga people, in the course of time, started moving in urban areas and started adapting themselves to a new life style negatively impacted their traditions.

However, most of the Tonga cultural heritage is conserved in the Choma Museum & Crafts Centre, established in 1988 and situated in the Choma district, at the Southern Province of Zambia.

The museum displays the cultural heritage of the Tonga tribe housing many traditional artefacts including beadwork, musical instruments, spears, clay figurines and jewellery.

The institution aims to combine economic and cultural objectives and, in fact, targeted projects have been recently developed to stimulate the production of local crafts such as baskets, beadwork, carving, among others. This helps preserve local traditional skills and also provides an alternative form of income to the people of the Southern Province of Zambia.

Cover picture: The Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls – © I. Malambo


Lancaster, C. and Vickery, P. (2007). The Tonga Speaking Peoples of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Lamham: University Press of America.




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